HOW MUCH IS ENOUGH?
There was a time, back when people of grit populated the land, that a landowner only had one choice when his neighbor’s trees encroached – to cut ‘em back. The Massachusetts Rule was the coin of the realm: if you didn’t like your neighbor’s tree overhanging your eaves, or its roots wrapping around your sewer line, you only had one option. The courts didn’t want to hear about it. Self-reliance was what it was all about.
Then along came the Hawaii Rule, which suggested that a naturally growing tree could be or could become a nuisance and that an aggrieved landowner could sue for an order requiring its removal. One rule does not necessarily negate the other. So when does one oil up the chainsaw, and when does one fire up the word processor?
The Massachusetts Rule is, generally speaking, a blunt instrument. It’s one thing to cut away branches that pose a threat (or even an inconvenience) to your property. But what if cutting a limb back to the property line leaves a 15-foot leafless stub extending from the branch to the boundary. That’s not necessarily according to ANSI Standard A-300, but on the other hand, you don’t have the right to trim it properly unless your neighbor consents to you coming onto his or her land to do so.
Or, more dangerously, what if you cut back roots to the extent that the tree loses too much subsurface support, and falls on your neighbor’s new Bugatti Chiron? Are you liable? After all, you did no more than what the Massachusetts Rule permitted you to do.
The Hawaii Rule, on the other hand, is Doug Lewellyn’s dream. What an All-American solution – let’s sue! When is harm sensible? When your foundation walls collapse? When a dead branch falls on your Bugatti? When leaves clog the filter on your swimming pool? How much harm is enough?
Joan Cannon lived next to Lamar Dunn. Joan was unhappy with the roots from the Dunns’ eucalyptus tree, which were encroaching underground onto her land, as roots are wont to do. After all, a tree will quite often send roots out 35 feet or more from the base of the trunk, and the root system has little regard for some lines drawn on a recorder’s map.
We’re not sure why Joan was so exercised. Maybe she was naturally crotchety. Perhaps she was unusually territorial. Maybe her neighbor had a nice Bugatti, while Joan drove a Yugo. What we can be sure of is that the eucalyptus roots weren’t really causing any harm.
That didn’t stop Joan from suing the Dunns. The trial court denied an award of any damages and refused to order Lamar the appellee to remove the offending roots and tree. Joan appealed.
The Court of Appeals considered the classic Restatement of the Law trespass approach, which held simply that if a neighbor owns something that trespasses, he or she has to remove it if there is a duty to remove it, regardless of whether it causes harm or not. That’s the rub, the court said. When does such a duty arise?
The court found guidance in the Restatement on nuisance, and held that a duty to remove offending branches or roots arose when some actual and sensible or substantial damage has been sustained. Joan’s general objection to the unseen eucalyptus roots did not equate to harm. Thus, the roots could remain.
Cannon v. Dunn, 145 Ariz. 115, 700 P.2d 502 (Ariz.App. Div. 2 1985). This case involves the liability of Lamar Dunn, an adjoining landowner, for roots from a eucalyptus tree which invaded the subsurface of land belonging to his neighbor, Joan Cannon. The trial court found that the roots had caused no actual damage, and denied an award ordering the Dunns to remove the offending roots and tree.
Held: Dunn did not have to remove the roots. The Court of Appeals rejected Cannon’s argument that it should apply the Restatement (Second) of Torts § 158 (1965), which stated that “one is subject to liability to another for trespass, irrespective of whether he thereby causes harm to any legally protected interest of the other, if he intentionally… fails to remove from the land a thing which he is under a duty to remove.”
The Court said that it was “obvious that one must first determine whether there is a duty to remove the object and that in this case § 158(c) really begs the question.” More to the point, the Court observed, was the Restatement (Second) of Torts § 840 (on nuisances), which held that a possessor of land is not liable to his adjoining landowner for a nuisance resulting solely from a natural condition of the land.
The Court paid lip service to the Massachusetts Rule, noting that Arizona law permitted a “landowner who sustains injury by the branches or roots of a tree or plant on adjoining land intruding into his domain, regardless of their non-poisonous character may, without notice, cut off the offending branches or roots at the property line.” At the injured landowner’s expense, of course.
But when some actual and sensible or substantial damage has been sustained, the Court said, the injured landowner may maintain a nuisance action for abatement of the nuisance, and compel the removal of the branches or roots at the tree owner’s expense. However, where no injury has been sustained, no lawsuit be brought for either an injunction or damages.